Tools for exploring

How to Find True North Without a Compass

Method One of Eight:
The Shadow-Tip Method

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      Place a stick upright in the ground so that you can see its shadow. Alternatively, you can use the shadow of a fixed object. Nearly any object will work, but the taller the object is, the easier it will be to see the movement of its shadow, and the narrower the tip of the object is, the more accurate the reading will be. Make sure the shadow is cast on a level, brush-free spot.
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      Mark the tip of the shadow with a small object, such as a pebble, or a distinct scratch in the ground. Try to make the mark as small as possible so as to pinpoint the shadow’s tip, but make sure you can identify the mark later.
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      Wait 10-15 minutes. The shadow tip will move mostly from west to east in a curved line.
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      Mark the new position of the shadow’s tip with another small object or scratch. It will likely move only a short distance.
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      Draw a straight line in the ground between the two marks. This is an approximate east-west line.
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      Stand with the first mark (west) on your left, and the other (east) on your right. You are now facing mostly toward true north, regardless of where you are in the world. The illustration shows that the sun and marker at Points 1 is what is happening for Step 2. At Points 2, it shows what is happening for Step 4. This method is based on the fact that the sun moves across the sky from East to West

Method Two of Eight:
Using the Stars: Northern Hemisphere

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      Locate the North Star (Polaris) in the night sky. The North Star is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper constellation. If you have trouble finding it, find the Big Dipper. The two lowest stars in the Big Dipper (the outermost stars of the cup of the dipper) form a straight line that “points” to the North Star. You may also find the constellation Cassiopeia, which is always opposite the Big Dipper. The North Star is located about midway between the central star of Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper (see figure).
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      Draw an imaginary line straight down from the North Star to the ground. This direction is true north, and if you can find a landmark in the distance at this point, you can use it to guide yourself.

Method Three of Eight:
Using the Stars: Southern Hemisphere

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      Find the Southern Cross constellation. In the southern hemisphere, the North Star is not visible, and no single star always indicates north or south, but you can use the Southern Cross and the pointer stars as your guide. The Southern Cross constellation is formed by five stars, and the four brightest stars form a cross that is angled to one side.
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      Identify the two stars that make up the long axis of the cross. These stars form a line which “points” to an imaginary point in the sky which is above the South Pole. Follow the imaginary line down from the two stars five times the distance between them.
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      Draw an imaginary line from this point to the ground, and try to identify a corresponding landmark to steer by. Since this is true south, true north is directly opposite it (behind you as you are looking at the point).

Method Four of Eight:
Using the Stars: Equator

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      The Orion Constellation is visible from both hemispheres depending on the time of the year. It is a permanent feature on the equator.
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      Look for Orion’s Belt. Orion has several prominent stars. The ‘belt’ (3 stars in a row) runs from East to West. Look for that, it has a ‘sword’ attached to it.
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      Project a line From the sword through the middle star of the Belt. That is the general direction of North.
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      Orion lays across the Equator: the Belt rises & sets at east & West

Method Five of Eight:
Alternate Shadow-Tip Method for Increased Accuracy

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      Set up a stick as perpendicular to the level ground as possible and mark the first shadow-tip as above. For this method, take your first reading in the morning, at least an hour or so before midday.
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      Find an object or length of string, etc., exactly the same length as the shadow.
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      Continue taking measurements of the shadow’s length every 10-20 minutes. The shadow will shrink before midday and will grow after midday.
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      Measure the shadow length as the shadow grows. Use the string or object you used to measure the length of the initial shadow. When the shadow grows to exactly the same length as the string (and hence exactly the same length as your first measurement), mark the spot.
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      Draw a line connecting the first and second marks as above. Once again, this is your east-west line, and if you stand with the first mark on your left and the second on your right, you will be facing true north.

Method Six of Eight:
Watch Method: Northern Hemisphere

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      Find an analog watch (the kind with hour and minute hands) that is set accurately. Place it on a level surface, such as the ground, or hold it horizontal in your hand.
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      Point the hour hand at the sun.
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      Bisect (that is, find the centre point of) the angle between the hour hand and the twelve o’clock mark (the number 12 on the watch). The centre of the angle between the hour hand and twelve o’clock mark is the north-south line. If you don’t know which way is north and which south, just remember that no matter where you are, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere the sun is due south at midday. If your watch is set to daylight saving time bisect the angle between the hour hand and the one o’clock mark instead.

Method Seven of Eight:
Watch Method: Southern Hemisphere

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      Use an analogue watch as above, and point the twelve o’clock mark (the number 12) of the watch toward the sun. If your watch is set to daylight saving time, point the one o’clock mark toward the sun.
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      Bisect the angle between the twelve o’clock mark (or one o’clock mark if using daylight saving time) and the hour hand to find the north-south line. If you’re unsure which way is north, remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west no matter where you are. In the southern hemisphere, however, the sun is due north at midday.

Method Eight of Eight:
Estimating the Sun’s Path

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    Understand the path that the sun takes. Remember that the sun rises in the general east and sets in the general west. In between, the sun will sweep out an arc to the south in the northern hemisphere, and to the north in the southern hemisphere (always towards the equator). This means that in the very early morning (shortly after sunrise), the sun will be generally east, while very late in the evening (shortly before sunset), it will be sun will be generally west.

    • The path of the sun can vary quite a bit depending on the season, especially far from the equator. For instance, in the summer, sunrise and sunset will tend to be further from the equator (more northerly in the northern hemisphere, and more southerly in the southern hemisphere), while in the winter, they will tend to be closer to the equator. Only one the spring and fall equinoxes does the sun rise due-east and set due-west.
    • For precautionary measures, familiar with the path of the sun for your area or the area where you will be going before you are in a situation where you have to know it. A helpful and free web tool is available at In particular, try to learn the shape of the path at the two solstices, and the approximate time of sunrise and sunset for these two paths. Knowing this information ahead of time can help you estimate the path for the current day.
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    Find north based on the direction of the sun. If you determine that the sun is in the east (early in the morning), then north will be roughly a quarter turn counterclockwise (for instance, if you’re facing the sun, then you would turn to the left). If the sun is in the west, then north is roughly a quarter turn clockwise. If the sun is in south, then north is directly opposite it.

    • Around 12 noon (depending on day light savings time and your position within the timezone), the sun will be pointed due south in the northern hemisphere, and due north in the southern hemisphere.

Published: April 20, 2016

Ball Pass Crossing

Recommended route:

(Big thanks to Mike Steel (Director for Biomathematics Research Centre Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury) for his help in creating this post)

Wait till summer and clear weather; even then you’ll still need to take ice axe and crampons). Drive up to Celmisia flat the night before and stash the bike somewhere up the Tasman glacier. Return to Mt Cook village and camp at the White Horse Hill Campground. Next day set off early up the Hooker valley and head up a prominent gully (usually snow filled) then sidle up towards the pass. Drop down to the (private) hut then down to the valley and the bike. Take essentials:  a map, compass, jacket, water, tent, ice axe, crampons.

Right click and open in new tab to see full size image here


BallPass - Earth Map

Trip options and detailed guidelines:

The trip can be started from either valley but, for safety reasons and in order to gain the best views, the recommended route is to start at the White Horse Hill camping area and travel up the East Hooker, over Ball Pass (sidling around under Mounts Rosa and Mabel) and down the Ball Ridge to the Tasman Valley and Ball Hut.

A nice alternative if you are short of time or unsure of your mountaineering experience, is a day trip from Ball Flat up the Ball Ridge to either Caroline Hut or Ball Pass.

Places to stay

It is best to camp at the lower altitudes either side of the crossing to take advantage of both the water and better weather.

There is a camping site at the shingle fan in East Hooker valley. Water is available at a nearby waterfall. The Tasman valley camping site is by Ball Hut and is equipped with water, toilet and park radio.

Whitehorse Hill carpark to East Hooker valley camping site

Time: 3 – 4 hr

From the carpark follow the Hooker Valley Track across three swingbridges to near the end point at the Hooker Lake. Veer right following a discernable ground trail to meet the original Ball Pass route up the East Hooker to the large shingle fan opposite the Hooker Hut and Copland Gut (both in the West Hooker valley). There is good camping available at this shingle fan. Water is available at a nearby waterfall.

Note: this section of the route is becoming more difficult as several side streams are becoming deeply incised.

East Hooker valley camping site to the ‘playing field’

Time: 1 hr 30 min

From the shingle fan, follow the distinct gully to the north-east. This is snow-filled in spring. The gully leads to a large shoulder or flat area below Mt Mabel known as the ‘playing field’. This is an ideal camping site. Water or snow melt is often available near the top of the gully. Poo pots are essential for this site.

‘Playing field’ to Ball Pass

Time: 4 hr

From the ‘playing fields’ ascend the shingle slopes to the east. These slopes form a large Z between bluffs. Once on top of the Z, follow an exposed ledge to the north, to a small shoulder on the ridge north-west of Mt Mabel. This is one of the few routes through the bluffs and it is important to gain this point sufficiently high enough.

Traverse from this point in a northerly direction across rock slabs and then descend around the spur, west of Mt Rosa. Once past Mt Rosa ascend the shingle slope (this may be a snow field at certain times of the year) in a north-easterly direction to Ball Pass.

Ball Pass to Caroline Hut

Time: 2 hr

After crossing Ball Pass and taking time to enjoy the views, descend Ball Glacier for approximately 60–70 m (200 feet) before turning south to gain Ball Ridge. Descend Ball Ridge to Caroline Hut.

Caroline Hut – privately owned

Caroline Hut is situated part way down the Ball Ridge. Water bottles may be filled and the unlocked toilet may be used, but this is a private hut and cannot be used by the public. There is a shelter on the end of it for emergency use only. Do not camp near the hut – there is a good camping site available 750 m north-east of Caroline Hut at the end of the flat section of Ball Ridge.

Caroline Hut to Ball Flat

Time: 2 hr

From this point descend several rock steps, more or less following the ridge crest. Two difficult sections can be avoided by turning around to the eastern side. Follow the track markers to the level part of the track on the narrow ridge line. Do not follow the historic track further along, as slips have made it impassable.

Descend the boulder scree to the east and pick up the route through alpine scrub. Follow the road and cut track to slips and boulder scree that lead to the old Ball Hut site and over to Ball Flat.

Ball Flat to Blue Lakes carpark

Time: 2 – 3 hr

From Ball Flat head down the Tasman valley following the old Ball Hut road. The road has slumped in several places and climbers need to scramble up and down the moraine to regain the track.

Keep to the track and do not be tempted to go down the moraine wall to the glacier. Loose rock makes this particularly dangerous. Once on flat simply wander down grassy terrace to Ball Flat. Leaving Ball Flat, follow the obvious track to Husky Flat, which changes to a 4WD track down to Blue Lakes carpark. It is an eight-kilometre road drive from the carpark back to Aoraki/Mt Cook village.

Questions that need answers:

1. Can you do the trail in Spring? (September)
2. Does crossing the Celmisia Flat to drop off the bikes require a 4WD? And is the flat still suitable for riding bikes? What about in Spring?
3. How long does it take to get from the Celmisia Flat to White Horse Hill campground if you are walking?
4. Are you fit enough?
5. Can you cross the deep snow in Spring?
6. Can we get 4 bikes down on the back of Dans car?

Answers from Mike:

1. sure – Spring should be OK – provided there hasn’t been a big fall of snow – best if there’s not too much snow —  been a bit of snow melted and bit freeze-thaw, and the day you do its cold and you start early – otherwise you might spend a fair while wading through snow (i.e. could take a while).  Just after heavy snow or in warm spring conditions there would be avo. risk too.

2.3. Actually there is now a sealed road all the way from the village to the carpark. From there if head up the gravel road you either need a 4WD, or you could bike from the car park.  We went up the late-afternoon before and took our bikes
as far up the valley as we could (since we planned to do the whole circuit in a day) – and ran back to the car and drove back to the white horse campground near the start of the other end of the track.  How far you can ‘bike’ up that valley changes with time (we can to push it over some sections, and didn’t bother getting all the way to the ball shelter) – so just stop when you want and cover it from the sight of inquisitive keas (but make sure you can find it also – including in the dark!). Of course if you’re not in such a rush (e.g. doing it in 2 days) you can leave any bike (even a road bike)
at the car park, or even as you say, walk all the way back on the road – but that seems a bit tedious (and not much fun if you are doing it in a day). If you weren’t carrying ice-axe and crampons etc, you could run it but I’d suggest putting at least one bike (maybe borrowed from the village) so you can get back to a car easily.

Pros and Cons of walking the Crossing in Winter:

  • There is no huts. We will be camping the whole time.
  • There is no water on the trip, other than what is provided by snow or waterfall
  • The season is typically November to April
  • The track is not marked.
  • The track is universally marked as for “experienced hikers only”
  • The track is regarded as requiring a high level of fitness, requiring sustained uphill walking for long periods of time.
  • In spring there will be deep snow. So travel times will be largely expanded.
  • We will require snow shoes
    • Last year we did Kepler in August and it was all good. Sort of.
    • The trail is only 3 days, so evacuation will be relatively easy.




Published: June 24, 2015